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AN OUTLINE OF THE IDEA OF REBIRTH
By MAURICE NICOLL1.
THE idea of rebirth is practically universal in religions, however primitive. In this paper I am going to try and bring home to you the idea that the motive or theme or myth of rebirth is universal, because it lies in the human unconscious and still continually appears in dreams. From practical experience in analysis, I would go so far as to say that the rebirth theme is the very basis of our psychical life. I believe that in human psychology is embodied a dynamic principle which appears under the alternating symbols of death and resurrection, and that it is ultimately for this reason that neurotic conflict and neuroses and all psychological unhappiness exist. In other words the psyche is not designed to be stationary, and if we seek to be static, and to cling to outlived values in ourselves we must inevitably suffer, because we shall be at war with a principle in ourselves-not outside ourselves, although we may see it only so.
Whenever an entirely new attitude enters into a person's life, psychological rebirth to some extent has occurred. There are certain periods in life when certain biological transformations seek to come. They come from within as forces. The period of puberty is an example. For some time before puberty has actually expressed itself, there are movements of energy in the unconscious, and characteristic dreams. I mean that the coming function still lies in the unconscious and appears under a symbol -as, for example, under the symbol of the dark snake, the wound, the bull, or the unknown, earthy, rough and alarming stranger. Puberty may then come about in the body, but remain unexpressed for years in the psychology, in which case the psychological energy or libido belonging to this function will continue to appear as the snake or earthy and alarming man, and in many other ways, in dreams. For a symbol is energy in the unconscious. Now this is repression of what is growing up from below-not repression of the past, but repression of the future. Elsewhere I have called this non-expression. It is repression of the normal psycho-biological growth. It is not repression of what has been 1 Read before the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society, June 23, 1920.
experienced but repression of what has yet to be experienced. We can understand that the new energy coming up from below, from the unconscious, may strike against a hard crust of conscious and rigid values and so be unable to get through. Birth of the new energy is then made impossible, and the result may be neurosis, or the first bias to neurosis.
At different ages there are different tasks, and our attitudes should change. Now, if we look at the dream from the dynamic point of view, we see apart from its cathartic value that it contains what is germinal. If we look at embryonic development we find, before the perfect organ appears, many preparatory stages of that organ. In exactly the same way we find, before the perfect function appears, many preparatory stages of that function in the unconscious. Now, there are dreams that deal with normal sexual growth. Some of these dreams are so characteristic that we might call them myths. There is in my opinion a dreammyth for every period of life, and a myth-cycle for life itself. There are myths that deal with normal sexual growth. There are also, at a later stage, myths which deal with normal sexual involution. In my experience there is a psychological menopause which precedes by some years the actual menopause in women. The dreams in this stage of life tend to be all of a certain kind—unlike the dreams of puberty. These dreams are very complicated and it is impossible to understand them in the form in which they are dreamt without reference to mythology and the psychology of primitives.
Broadly speaking, these dreams that women have at the psychological menopause always involve the understanding, and the acceptance or refusal, of a new attitude; which if accepted leads to an easier future. There are certain very critical points in life and at these points new attitudes are very necessary, and the myth in the unconscious changes. I would say that in men the age of about thirty-three to thirty-seven is one that is very important. The dreams that come during this time are quite characteristic and do not, in my experience, come at any other time. It would seem that the unconscious has a certain attitude at this period of a man's life which tends to lead him in a certain direction. He comes to a cross road. If he does not take a new direction then he may lay down the foundation for eventual neurotic trouble. It will be seen that from this aspect neurotic trouble means that we have not followed our myth. The idea that life must be a series of inner changes and not a stubborn inflexible unvarying course is perhaps new to some. We have the idea of change, however, expressed concretely in those old ideas that man renews his body every seven years. In women
I would put the age of about twenty-eight, particularly for unmarried women, as one of great importance-as important as that period which I have just stated concerning men. Now, whenever a critical point in life is reached certain symbols appear which deal with the idea of a rebirth to new attitudes and to the new myth for the next phase of life.
Whenever we have a new attitude or function forming itself in the unconscious and we hesitate to go down into the depths to meet it, but cling to our old attitudes, then we add a bias towards neurosis, in place of adding to ourselves a new understanding. But if we do go down to meet it, we experience a minor or major rebirth.
At those ages in the life of men and women which are critical, rebirth symbolism is regularly found in the dream, so far as my experience goes. It is perhaps to be expected that in world-periods of transition, such as the one we are now in, when the interpretation of life is becoming more obscure and therefore a more personal matter, rebirth dreams should be more general. But of that we can have no proof.
Rebirth is expressed by the unconscious in as many ways as it is in mythology. The dream may contain all the main motives; or only express a few. Jung has given us the main movements in the theme from a psychological standpoint in his Psychology of the Unconscious. There is first of all the movement towards or into the mother. This is an expression for the movement of the libido, seeking new values or rebirth, going into the unconscious. It is expressed in mythology, ritual or religion in symbols such as Jonah going into the whale's belly, Christ going into the heart of the earth, the initiate in the cave or lying in the grave, the knight sleeping naked before the altar, the hero travelling in the interior of the monster under the sea towards the west, etc. After varying adventures, the hero reappears with renewed or divine strength, in the east.
The symbols refer to the entrance into the womb. Reductively considered, this movement of the libido, whenever it occurs in the course of a person's life means a movement towards the mother. This can easily be given a concrete expression as an incest-wish, relating to the objective mother. As you know, this movement of the libido has found such an interpretation. It is perfectly valid as it stands, provided the second and third acts of the drama of rebirth are ignored, and beyond all doubt we find continually this movement of libido to the mother in the dreams of the neurotic. We can say therefore that in the unconscious lies an incest-wish. But this view is horizonless; it blots out the ultimate meaning of the movement, which is an attempt at healing, or regenera
tion. I must remind you that in so far as the neurotic fails to be reborn, his libido, seeking rebirth, will remain striving towards the mother. We might be content to take the mother concretely, because this is often a help in making the analysis effective in the early stages, but it would not do away with the psychological meaning of the mother-that is, as a symbol of the unconscious, of the re-creative psychological womb, where energy enters in and finds a new germinal attitude to fertilize.
The ritual of rebirth is very common in primitive tribes at the age of puberty. The number of examples, from every part of the world, is almost endless. Among Australian tribes the following customs have been noticed. (1) A long hut is made in a lonely spot in the shape of a monster with a gaping mouth. The novice has to pass into this. He is swallowed up by it and then after various séances, he is released from the monster's belly. Circumcision follows. After a period he returns to his village, but he is now supposed to be reborn-that is, he is something new, and has forgotten his old attitudes. This idea is carried out by his not recognising the speech or faces of his relations, etc.
The monster is the womb, exactly comparable to the belly of the whale. There are still theologians, devoid of psychological understanding, who speculate about the particular fish in the Mediterranean Sea that swallowed Jonah. The ritual outlined above externalises the psychological motive in the unconscious. It satisfies the unconscious compulsion; for the dynamic racial myths lying deep in the human unconscious may exert compulsive force.
(2) After a tooth has been knocked out, the novice lies in a grave and is covered over by sticks and earth. He then comes to life,' performs a magic dance in the grave, and exhibits the magic substance he has got in his mouth from his rebirth, etc.
The grave again is the womb. The losing of something old may express the idea of rebirth in a negative way. The knocking out or losing of a tooth- a very common theme in dreams-and the act of circumcision both signify, in primitive custom, an initiation, and are associated with the ritual of rebirth. The psychological meaning is that before a new attitude can emerge, an old one must be lost.
Apart from primitive ritual, the idea of rebirth runs through folklore. For example the idea that sickness is cured by passing the sick person through a hole in a tree or through a narrow circle of wood or by wearing a certain kind of ring is a concrete expression of the act of rebirth-of being cured by entering and leaving the womb. It is the externalisation of a motive springing out of the human unconscious. When we externalise
or project the unconscious, we put the world of the psychological realities into the world of the concrete realities, just as the insane person does, and so confusion comes about and many strange customs.
Whenever we begin to see rebirth symbolism in dreams we must suspect the existence of a crisis, major or minor, in the history of the patient. I do not know how to speak about rebirth symbolism in dreams quite simply; it is something that is rather complicated. Let me remind you again that we can handle rebirth symbolism in two ways; we can trace it back to a desire to enter the mother's womb, as did Nicodemus, and say that it is an incestuous movement towards the objective mother; or we may say that it is a movement of libido towards the unconscious—that is, towards the creative mother-source of psychological being. This movement takes place when some new power for life is needed and at such a crisis the new function lies in the womb of the unconscious and the libido must go downwards to animate it. A period of introversion, and of in-going, must always occur before the new psychological birth can be brought into daily life. This is the second act of the drama. It is the lying in the 'womb.' Coincident with the rebirth dreams we may find the new function frequently represented as a little baby. The little baby in dreams is not always the new function; it has not always to do with the birth of the individuality-of psychological freedom. The little baby in dreams may also stand for the infantility— for psychological bondage. The associations are very important in telling the difference between the two, but sometimes we have to wait and let the unconscious develop its theme before we can be certain. Practically, the periods where the rebirth symbolism comes are of great importance in analysis, and unless the newly forming libido is successfully led forth the outlook will not be good. We can only destroy the infantility by developing the individuality. We can destroy nothing by a negation, by a negative gesture. The libido cannot be stamped out; it can only transform itself. The libido that goes to the infantility must be gradually brought into the sphere of the individuality.
The idea of going into the water as a symbol of rebirth is found in the widespread ritual of baptism. By immersion, by going into the water and emerging from it, the old is washed away and the new is born. It is an idea that is much older than Christianity. Here the water plays the same rôle as the tomb, the cave or the belly of the fish. It is the symbol for the psychological mother. The sea or the sea-shell is used as a symbol for the re-creative mother in ancient myths.
I will give you an example of the simplest rebirth dream that I can J. of Psych. (Med. Sect.) 1